Earthlings

Japanese Title: 地球星人 (Chikyūseijin)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2018 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Press: Grove Press
Pages: 247

Content Warning: This review contains a frank discussion of child abuse and incest.

If you’ve made it past the content warning, you should also be aware that Earthlings contains extended and explicit descriptions of parental child abuse, incestuous child sexuality, adolescent sexual abuse, severe dissociation, suicidal ideation, mental illness, murder, starvation, and cannibalism. This material is central to the story, which has a truly disturbing ending.

While I would happily recommend Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman to anyone, Earthlings is definitely not for everyone. Elif Batuman calls this novel “hilarious” in the blurb on the front cover of the American edition, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Earthlings is deeply sad and upsetting. It’s not the least bit funny, joyous, offbeat, or quirky. The author’s tone may be deceptively light, but the themes of her story are as dark as they come.

Earthlings is a novel about the deteriorating mental state and unfortunate life decisions of a relatively normal girl named Natsuki who is made to feel that she isn’t human because of the sustained abuse she receives at the hands of her parents and teachers. The point of the story isn’t to argue that we need to free ourselves from the normative expectations of an oppressive society. Rather, Earthlings demonstrates just how deeply painful and unhealthy social alienation can be to the people who are arbitrarily designated as outcasts and scapegoats.  

The novel begins with the eleven-year-old Natsuki’s confession that she is a special child who was chosen by an alien named Piyyut, who came from Planet Popinpobopia to help her fight evil witches as a magical girl. Although Piyyut looks like a stuffed animal to ordinary people, he’s actually an emissary sent by the Magic Police. This is a secret to everyone except Natsuki’s cousin Yuu, who tells Natsuki that he understands Piyyut’s situation because he’s an alien too.

From the very first page, it’s clear that Natsuki has created a fantasy version of herself in order to escape the neglect of her parents. Neither of Natsuki’s parents attempt to hide their preference for her older sister Kise, who has a codependent Münchhausen-by-proxy relationship with their mother. While Kise can do no wrong and requires special care and attention, Natsuki becomes the scapegoat of her mother, who constantly criticizes her appearance and personality. Instead of defending Natsuki, everyone in her family defers to her mother – everyone except her kind and friendly cousin Yuu, whom Natsuki decides is her boyfriend and future marriage partner.

Because of the strength of her magical girl fantasy, Natsuki is able to survive the abuse she suffers at home. Unfortunately, precisely because this abuse makes her vulnerable, she becomes the sexual target of a young and popular teacher at her after-school tutoring program. The author gets the abusive teacher’s mentality exactly right. He starts with small acts that have plausible deniability, such as using “posture correction” as an excuse to grope Natsuki. When he escalates his behavior in an attempt to test the boundaries of what he can get away with, he does so in a way that Natsuki will be ashamed to talk about, such as fishing her used sanitary napkin out of the trash after she uses the bathroom.

Natsuki knows there’s something wrong with the teacher’s behavior and tells her mother, but her mother takes the teacher’s side and scolds Natsuki for overreacting. She then punishes Natsuki for “making up stories” by forcing her to spend more time with the teacher. Natsuki ends up going to the teacher’s house for a private lesson, which leads to exactly the scenario you’re afraid it will. The sexual assault scene is long, explicit, and extremely difficult to read. Once again, the author depicts the mentality of child abuse with perfect accuracy, in that the teacher forces Natsuki into a situation in which she feels compelled to “consent” to her assault, thus making it seem like her own fault.

Severely traumatized and knowing from experience that no one will believe she’s been raped, the now twelve-year-old Natsuki resolves to commit suicide in the mountain forest surrounding her grandparents’ house during the annual family get-together for the summer Obon festival. Before she dies, Natsuki wants to experience genuine physical affection, so she convinces her cousin Yuu to go out in the woods with her to have penetrative sex, after which she swallows an entire bottle of her aunt’s sleeping pills.

As Elif Batuman says in the blurb on the front cover of Earthlings, the abuse, rape, and attempted suicide of a twelve-year-old girl is “hilarious.”

Except it’s not. Natsuki’s fantasy of being a magical girl is a psychological coping mechanism, and her lack of affect is the result of severe trauma. Not only are the events Murata describes terrible to read, it’s also terrible to hear them recounted in the voice of a twelve-year-old narrator who doesn’t yet possess the emotional maturity to process what’s happening to her. This narrative style isn’t “quirky.” It’s horrifying.  

After Earthlings firmly establishes itself as a horror story told by an unreliable narrator, it jumps forward in time to 34-year-old Natsuki, who is currently in her third year of marriage to a man named Tomoya. After her suicide attempt, Natsuki was essentially treated as a prisoner by her family for two decades, and marriage seemed to be the only way for her to escape. Natsuki met Tomoya on a website for people in situations similar to her own, namely, people who need to get married in order to appease their families. The site caters mostly to the LGBTQ+ community; and, while Tomoya’s sexuality is never specified, he seems to be aro-ace, meaning that he does not experience romantic attraction and is disgusted by physical sexual contact.

Tomoya and Natsuki are essentially roommates who sleep in separate bedrooms while sharing an apartment. This arrangement works well for both of them, at least until their families begin to exert pressure about having children. The stress of this pressure weakens the deep fault lines of their respective childhood traumas, and they decide to escape society by fleeing to Natsuki’s grandparents’ house in the mountains. The house is currently occupied by Yuu, who has been acting as a caretaker for the property after having been laid off from a prestigious office job in Tokyo. As you can imagine, what happens to these three characters in an isolated cabin in the woods isn’t great, and the novel’s ending is shocking.

Earthlings is about three broken people whose connection to reality gradually deteriorates as they feed one another’s delusions while in total social isolation. The plot summary I’ve provided is the background necessary for the reader to understand the core of this story, as well as its tone.

In Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata argues for the quiet dignity of menial service jobs and the validity of neurodivergent perspectives. The narrator of Convenience Store Woman enjoys her job as a clerk at a convenience store because she finds the routine comforting and appreciates being able to interact with other people according to a preset script. Toward the end of the novel, she finds herself in a difficult situation because she succumbs to her family’s pressure to find a partner and chooses the first person to make himself available despite his unsuitability. Many readers of this internationally bestselling novel identified with the narrator’s perspective and sympathized with the author’s description of the small pleasures of part-time service industry jobs that are often looked down on by older generations.

Earthlings explores similar material and themes but takes a radically different approach. In this novel, Murata emphasizes her narrator’s social alienation to an extreme degree. The narrator’s unwilling separation from “Earthlings” is not a good thing, nor is it depicted as being relatable. Instead, Murata uses these characters to ask serious questions about what it means for neurodiversity and queerness to be forcibly removed from mainstream society. For instance, why are child molesters protected by their communities while the children they abuse are treated as unbalanced and unclean? Why is traveling overseas to undergo expensive and invasive surgery in order to have children seen as normal, while choosing to remain childless is viewed as antisocial and neurotic?

If you can handle the dark tone and gruesome subject matter of Earthlings, it’s an extremely compelling story. At the risk of calling child abuse “hilarious,” I have to admit that I was entertained, especially once Natsuki starts living in her grandparents’ abandoned house in the woods. For what it’s worth, the ultimate fate of the pedo teacher and the garbage parents who enabled him is unpleasant yet satisfying.   

As a fan of social horror, I love Earthlings, but I would caution potential readers to take the content warnings seriously. Sayaka Murata is a brilliant writer who tells strange and complicated stories, and I look forward to seeing more of her sizeable body of work in translation. I just hope that, in the future, she’s treated like the complex and nuanced literary figure she is instead of marketed as an easily digestible product of pop culture.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt

Japanese Title: むらさきのスカートの女 (Murasaki no sukāto no onna)
Author: Natsuko Imamura (今村 夏子)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 216

The Woman in the Purple Skirt begins as a charming set of observations about a woman who lives in a quiet neighborhood. It soon becomes clear, however, that there is something creepy about the narrator, who calls herself The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

The specificity of the narration raises many questions. Why is the narrator so obsessed with the Woman in the Purple Skirt? How is she able to observe her so closely? Is she stalking this woman? Or is she perhaps talking about herself in third person? Is she making up a fantasy version of herself, or is she projecting her personality onto a real woman? If so, why? Who is the Woman in the Purple Skirt? Who is the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan?

The Woman in the Purple Skirt isn’t suspense, necessarily, and it’s certainly not the “thriller” that the publisher seems to be trying to market it as, but the experience of reading this story is unsettling. The novella won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, which is awarded to work from emerging writers that pushes boundaries and has a certain air of being “literary.” Despite the stylish chick lit cover of the American edition, the plot of The Woman in the Purple Skirt is almost depressingly mundane.

After a series of temp jobs that she quits after only a few days, the Woman in the Purple Skirt finds employment as member of the cleaning staff at an upscale hotel. She seems to be having an affair with one of her supervisors, and rumors spread that her salary is disproportionately high. At the same time, certain imbalances in inventory cause her coworkers to suspect that she is stealing. As the atmosphere at work becomes more hostile, the woman’s relationship with her supervisor also deteriorates. Meanwhile, the narrator, who is also a supervisor on the hotel’s cleaning staff, continues to glide through the life of the Woman in the Purple Skirt like a shadow.

This story is banal, but the subtle uncanniness of the narration forces the reader to view these normal events in normal lives with a sense of unease. The prose is sparse, the language is simplistic, and the affect is almost completely flat. Lucy North’s translation is reminiscent of Raymond Carver, especially in terms of dialog. Like Carver’s short fiction, the themes that emerge from beneath the placid surface of the narration are distressing: economic precarity, alienation, and the dangers of aging without a social network or financial safety net.

Despite its engagement with contemporary social issues, there’s nothing about The Woman in the Purple Skirt that requires specialist cultural knowledge, as the experience of struggling with loneliness while making minimum wage is equally shitty everywhere. I’d recommend this novella to anyone who enjoyed (or was at least moved by) Convenience Store Woman, as well as anyone concerned with urban anomie who entertains doubts about the ethics of low-wage work.

Because of the intriguing questions it raises and the unfortunate relatability of the discussion it’s likely to inspire, I would also recommend The Woman in the Purple Skirt as a text in a class on contemporary Japanese fiction. In addition, I think the novella might work well as a text for upper-level Japanese language classes, as its polished yet accessible prose evades the deliberate opacity of most Akutagawa Prize-winning work. Imamura has a field day with the narrative ambiguities made possible by the Japanese language, so it might be interesting to read the original side-by-side with North’s translation, which makes a number of tough decisions that nevertheless read as smooth and effortless.

Acclaimed author Natsuko Imamura’s first work to appear in English translation is short enough to be read in the span of an hour, but it’s worth spending time with. It’s difficult to say that a book as genuinely creepy as The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an enjoyable read, but the novella is a darkly shining jewel of literary fiction that invites and rewards analysis and introspection.

The Cat in the Coffin

Japanese Title: 柩の中の猫 (Hitsugi no naka no neko)
Author: Mariko Koike (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 2009 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 190

According to the back cover copy, The Cat in the Coffin is “a gem of a modern update on the governess genre immortalized by Jane Eyre and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ [and a] hypnotic thriller that lures the reader into the darkness of the human heart,” which is as good of a description as any. The Cat in the Coffin is a story about family, desire, love, malice, and a cat at the center of a chilling murder.

Masayo, an aspiring artist from Hokkaido who has just turned twenty, moves to Tokyo to be a live-in housekeeper and caretaker for Momoko, the eight-year-old daughter of a semi-famous artist and college professor named Goro Kawakubo. The year is 1955, and Goro has embraced a modern American lifestyle of cocktails and garden parties after the tragic death of his wife. Masayo cares little for fashion or the glamor of high society, but she is enchanted by Momoko, who speaks to no one except her white cat Lala. Masayo bonds with Momoko through their shared love of Lala, and they become fast friends.

Everything goes well until a startlingly beautiful woman named Chinatsu shows up at one of Goro’s parties. Chinatsu worked as a translator and lived with her husband in America before becoming a widow and returning to Japan. Despite her air of cosmopolitan sophistication, Chinatsu is thoughtful and kind. Goro is clearly in love with her, but both Masayo and Momoko are ambivalent. After all, if Goro marries Chinatsu, there will be no need for Masayo to remain in the house as Momoko’s caretaker.

All of the characters in The Cat in the Coffin are good people, but they’re imperfect in small but significant ways. Goro takes his relationship with Chinatsu slowly so that his daughter will be comfortable with the woman who will replace her mother, but he is perhaps a little too willing to leave his daughter entirely to Masayo’s care. Momoko understandably misses her mother and craves her father’s affection, but her grief has caused her to become isolated and antisocial. Masayo tries her hardest to do what’s best for Momoko, but her crush on Goro causes her to give Chinatsu a cold shoulder.

The comparisons to Jane Eyre and “The Turn of the Screw” are apt, as Masayo’s idealized longing for Goro and Momoko’s aggressive strangeness create a difficult situation for Chinatsu, whose only flaw is that she isn’t able to conceal her dislike of Lala. Chinatsu gradually succumbs to a delusion that everything will work out if she no longer has to compete for Momoko’s affection with a cat, and she ends up taking drastic action in secret. Masayo witnesses her terrible act, which creates a terrible psychological burden she is unable to bear. The suspense of The Cat in the Coffin thus lies in witnessing a modestly happy household’s slow dissolution in a boiling pot of misdirected passion and ice-cold rage.

The Cat in the Coffin can also be read as a sustained exploration of Masayo’s fear of growing up as she longs for independence but still clings to childhood, sinking herself into a codependent relationship with Momoko and Lala instead of building a working friendship with Chinatsu, who represents her anxiety of adult sexuality. Meanwhile, although Chinatsu is only a secondary character from Masayo’s perspective, her life history is fascinating, and its eventual revelation is quite dramatic. Chinatsu’s story is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in her ambition and failed pursuit of the American dream, and it’s precisely because of her progressive American approach to Momoko that their relationship is so disastrous.  

The Cat in the Coffin begins at a somewhat leisurely pace, but the suspense is slowly amplified throughout the novel, which is neatly structured and short enough to be read in one or two sittings. The ending is highly satisfying, as is the frame narrative, in which Masayo, now a famous artist, relates the story of Momoko, Chinatsu, and Lala to her own housekeeper. The well-edited and well-executed translation keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, making The Cat in the Coffin an enjoyable book to binge. This psychological thriller is lean and sharp and almost painfully insightful, and I especially recommend it to fans of Japanese cat novels who are interested in something domestic that still has its claws.